In the most recent edition of Quadrant, an Australian intellectual monthly, the former Australian Ambassador to Burma 1980-1982, Richard Gate, has a short piece outlining his analysis of the country and its post-cyclone prospects. Unfortunately it is not available online.

In a novel twist on the standard presentation Gate compares current conditions in Burma to those he experienced during the Ne Win period. In doing so, he identifies two major areas that have, he claims, improved. One is the economy and the other is what he calls the “intellectual climate”. According to Gate:

What this means is that instead of pressing for political change which is unlikely to come, those who wish to see Burma well should exploit the changes that the junta has made by encouraging trade and tourism in Burma and developing the educational reforms so that as many Burmese as possible can benefit from them financially and intellectually.

This is not, of course, an entirely original argument. In one form or another this is the basic line that the Robert H. Taylors, Morten B. Pedersens, Thant Myint Us and David I. Steinbergs of the world have been pushing for years. And it is a line that has now made it to the august pages of Quadrant.

Quadrant — non-Australian readers may not know — has a reputation largely as the debating forum for the Right of Australian politics. There are exceptions but, in general, it is a comfy home for conservative politicians, and church leaders, and the like. Obviously a pro-engagement, pro-business approach is not completely out of character. And Australia, for better or for worse, already follows a policy on Burma that is (at least as far as I understand it) still quite in keeping with the arguments put by the former Ambassador (although it has changed a bit since September 2007). Australia has been involved in all manner of memorable “engagements” and has also sometimes taken a tougher line with the generals and their mates. Over the years Australia has been on both sides of the engagement debate.

Is that simply the nature of things?

The arguments for and against engagement are obviously ones that have been discussed here on New Mandala (and everywhere else) for years now. Today I don’t really have much to offer that is exactly new. But that, unfortunately, seems to be the way the debate about Burma has been run for years. Is there some way forward? Or are we all still waiting for McDonalds to make its big Burma push? Or, at the end of the day, will it be left to these familiar guys to make the running?